Kids of every age can be afraid to sleep in their own room. This can cause stress for the whole family. Parents get frustrated – especially if the child is no longer a toddler or pre-schooler. Siblings may be disturbed by the distress of the fearful child. Bedtime can be a nightly struggle and difficult experience for the child who is afraid.
If you have a child who is afraid to sleep in his or her room, consider the following tips:
Separation Anxiety is Normal in Very Small Children
Toddlers and pre-schoolers like to be near their parents at night. This doesn’t mean that they are suffering from clinical anxiety. In this age group, anxiety about being in one’s own room apart from parents, is perfectly normal. Of course, it’s annoying and inconvenient for parents! Parents would like their kids to just go to sleep quickly and easily and stay that way until the appropriate hour for waking in the morning. For very small children, this is not the most common scenario. Most young children need help settling down to sleep in their own beds and many need some sort of nighttime parental comfort as well. However, most of them outgrow these needs over time and do go to sleep happily in their own rooms.
Daytime Anxiety and Nighttime Anxiety are Related
While there are some children who are ONLY fearful at night, they are in the minority. Most kids with nighttime fears have experienced or are experiencing other fears as well. The tendency to be fearful or anxious is a genetically inherited trait. The child is not at fault for feeling afraid. He or she can’t help it! And he or she is suffering from it. The child needs YOUR help to learn to manage anxious feelings.
Saving the child from those things that he fears actually increase fear over time and causes it to spread. For instance, if a child is afraid of dogs and the parents are careful to prevent the child from ever having to deal with a dog, then the child’s fear of dogs will remain, and even intensify over time. Moreover, it is very likely that other fears will also develop. The reason for this phenomenon is that the child’s brain can never survive the fearful stimulus, since it is always avoiding that stimulus. You can’t master the fear of dogs when you are never allowed to be in the presence of dogs. What has to happen is that the child is helped to experience “survival” in the presence of a dog and this helps build confidence that dogs can be tolerated. The learning that something fearful can be tolerated allows the child to tolerate other anxiety-provoking things as well.
The trick is to HELP the child feel comfortable enough to be with the dog so that he can stay there long enough to feel he has “survived” the experience. Helping the child is a step-by-step process. For instance, the first step might be staying with the child while the child sees a dog that’s safely secured in a cage (at the pet store for instance). A next step might be holding the dog tightly on a leash, a distance from the child who is being held by an adult. A next step, might be to bring the dog a bit closer while being held on the leash. And so on.
These same ideas can be applied to helping a child overcome fear of sleeping in his or her own bed. A gradual process is easiest on the fearful child, allowing him or her to build confidence step by step. For instance, when putting the fearful child to bed, sit on the bed or lie down with the child for a few minutes until the child is able to fall asleep. A next step might be to sit beside the child until the youngster falls asleep. A next step might be to sit by the door of the child’s room, then just outside the door of the room, then in the hallway and then somewhere else on the same floor as where the child is sleeping and, if the house has more than one storey, then being on a different level of the house than the child.
Making it Easier for the Fearful Child
Not only does the child have to face and survive whatever he or she fears, but the child needs to feel comfortable during the process. If the child ISN’T comfortable, it is very unlikely that facing the fear will actually happen. Some children have only a minor fear of sleeping alone in their rooms. But others are intensely fearful. Those with relatively minor levels of fear, may be able to just “build up their emotional muscles” by experiencing the step-by-step parental withdrawal program described above.
However, children with intense fear may just panic as soon as the parent attempts to leave the room. Panic is an overwhelming sense of anxiety accompanied by all sorts of very uncomfortable physical and emotional symptoms. Children who throw a big tantrum may actually be experiencing feelings of panic. They need help in managing such strong reactions. But what help do children receive? Keep in mind that adults have access to powerful medications to take the edge off their own anxiety. Children, on the other hand, are left for the most part to tolerate their feelings without relief. Fortunately, there are some forms of alternative medicine that can be safe for children and that can help gently lift intense fear out of their system.
For instance, Bach Flower Remedies can gently melt away the tendency to be fearful. The remedy Aspen is suitable for fear of the dark. The remedy Mimulus is suitable for fear of separation from parents (fear of being alone). The remedy Rock Rose is good for relieving symptoms of panic. A Bach Flower Practitioner can make a remedy bottle containing the most appropriate flower remedies for your child or you can read about the remedies and choose those that you think may be helpful, or you can try any one or all of the three mentioned here. The pre-mixed remedy called “Rescue Remedy” can also help with nighttime panic. If using only one remedy, drop 2 drops of it into a bit of liquid (any kind), 4 times a day until the anxiety has lifted. If using more than one remedy, put 2 drops of each in a Bach Mixing Bottle (one ounce glass bottle sold where Bach Flower Remedies are sold in health food stores) that has been filled with water. Add a teaspoon of brandy to preserve the bottle. Give four drops four times a day until the anxiety has lifted.
Essential oils can also soothe nighttime anxiety. Consult a professional aromatherapist for a suitable preparation and dose whenever using essential oils since they are slightly medicinal. Essential oils like lavendar or chamomille might be useful.
Herbal remedies can also soothe fear. However, always consult a professional herbalist for correct herbs and dosage since these are medicinal. Teas that you can purchase ready-made in health food stores and supermarkets are likely safe for children, but of course, they are far less potent. Nonetheless, giving the child a bit of chamomille tea or “sleepy-time” teas may help calm his or her nervous system.
Homeopaths, accupuncturists and naturopaths may also be able to help.
Get Help if Necessary
Parents cannot always solve the problem themselves. If you’ve tried to help your child in various ways but nothing is making a positive difference, consult a child psychologist or other mental health professional. This person can teach your child more skills for coping with and reducing fearful feelings. With the proper help, your child WILL soon be sleeping alone in his or her own room without fear.